Race Date: Saturday 21st May 2022
For Rachel Rea, by special request
The Old County Tops Fell Race covers 37 miles and involves around 10,000 feet of ascent, but the exact distance and amount of ascent are dependent on the route you choose. It starts in Great Langdale and takes in the tops of Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Coniston before returning to Great Langdale. You have to run in a pair.
I was not supposed to do this race this year, a bit of a step too far (I’d thought) and too many other things going on. However, one day a FB post appeared from Nick Burns asking for someone to run with him as his partner had had to drop out. I am just too easily tempted by the thought of hours of pain and suffering in the hills, and put myself forward to partner up.
I could go on and on about the difficulties of sorting childcare (when your family is away and your children don’t like each other enough to agree to be looked after by the same person…), or the difficulties of getting a space for a tiny weeny tent at a campsite which says it’s full but clearly wasn’t. Instead, I’ll talk about the race…..but first…
… A bit about Friday night, ‘cos it was ace.
Nick and I arrived just after 8pm. The pub had stopped serving so we each grabbed a suitably heavy burrito from Tesco. I didn’t realise at this point that we’d be going to the pub so I grabbed some of those small bottles of wine (on 3 for 2) and on our way to the campsite I drank one of them. Nick already had some beer in the boot.
On arrival, we bumped into Simon Bayliss and his partner Olly Harrison, and set up camp next to them. The ‘full’ campsite, which I’d had to beg my way into, was sparsely populated, I can imagine this was either a result of covid measures, or the National Trust not needing much money due to its extortionate parking/membership charges! There was a sign up saying ‘Campsite full’.
It was decided we’d go to the pub. Simon and Olly had headed off to Ambleside to get some food so Nick and I had a couple of pints. That would be enough for me, I’d thought. But….then Simon and Olly turned up and two more pints were had. The atmosphere in the pub was great, a man was playing an accordian, it was lively. Suddenly, it was last orders, and we were a bit drunk.
So there it was, the preparation for my biggest race yet was to get half pissed and go to bed just before midnight. The way of the (amateur) fell runner?
We’d agreed on a 5:30 start the next morning. I woke to the sound of my alarm and some birdsong, but more notably the distant sounds of snoring and trumping from nearby tents! I’d slept relatively well, only up once in the night, which wasn’t bad for 4 pints! The morning was perfect. Sunny, calm and warm enough. I made a brew and ate loads of the flapjack I’d baked during the week.
At 7am we began the 15 minute walk to registration, where we were all handed buffs and maps. The atmosphere was calm and jovial and not at all tense considering the feat which lay ahead. Friends, old and new, chatted happily, and a cameraman was filming in the background (the film is to be completed next year, apparently).
At 7:50 we were ushered to a carpark, and given a short race briefing. Then, after a 15 second countdown, we were off. It was 08:01.
The first few miles of the race were lovely. It was sunny, the scenery was spectacular. I chatted away with runners I knew, and those I didn’t know. We jogged the flats and downs, and walked the ups. It was all very relaxed and I felt good.
Before long we started to climb. I remained pretty positive…with the race billed as ‘approximately’ 10,000ft of elevation, I just had the attitude that every foot climbed was a foot less to climb. Then suddenly we were faced with a Very Steep Hill. I believe this was Dollywaggon Pike, on the spine of the Helvellyn range. Helvellyn summit was where we were heading. Half way up, Nick turned back and commented that there weren’t many runners behind us. He was right. I started mentally preparing to come last.
Once up Dollywaggon the climb was less steep and more gradual. The views were pretty spectacular, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. The ascent to Helvellyn summit was nice, by far the easiest of the day, and we were of course fresher at this point.
And so began the descent. Nice and runnable at first, but then got steeper and steeper and put immense strain on the quads and knees. But before long, with stunning views of forests and lakes to our right, we were at the first checkpoint – Wythburn car park.
The checkpoint had egg sandwiches and jam sandwiches, malt loaf (buttered), juice, and tea. I grabbed some egg sandwiches (yum) and malt loaf (yum again) and we set off in the direction of Scafell Pike, a million miles away.
I’d heard people talking about ‘the bog’ at the start. I hadn’t really asked questions but I’d thought two things. 1. It’s been pretty dry recently, so it’ll be fine. 2. A bog is that such as on the Salt Cellar race, a small patch of wet ground which will swallow alive runners who do not know of its existence, but can be craftily avoided with prior knowledge. I’d been wrong on both counts. It wasn’t dry, and it wasn’t small. It went on for what felt like about 6 miles but in reality may only have been about 2. It was relentless and energy sapping. I fell in a muddy bog and got muddy over my knees. 10 minutes later I fell in a sphagnum bog up to my waist. It was hard to get out, and, me being me, I declined all offers of assistance. On the plus side, I came out a lot cleaner than when I’d gone in!
I think it was then that the weather came in, and it was rainy, windy and cold. My feet felt like blocks of ice. This went on for quite a while, but the rain eventually petered out.
Nick informed me that our next checkpoint – Angle Tarn – was just around the corner, 5 minutes away. The cut off was 13:30 and it was 12:30 so we’d be fine, he said. The problem with this was, there were no corners, or tarns, in sight, and time was ticking away. I started to get nervous. 13:30 was a ‘soft cut-off’, so if you got there after time they wouldn’t DNF you but instead recommend that you stop, otherwise tell you to get a move on to meet the hard cut-off of 16:00 at Cockley Beck. In my head, the way I was feeling, I knew I wouldn’t be ‘getting a move on’ anywhere so yep, I was nervous.
Then, finally, there it was. No sandwiches this time but lots of Tangfastics and cheerful marshals. It was 12:55, we’d made it 35 mins under. Pretty tight I thought, and I was worried. I set off immediately up the hill, knowing I was moving slowly so not wanting to rest, and I forgot to tell Nick I was leaving!
Before long he caught me up. I can’t remember much of the next bit until we were on the rocky ascent to Scafell Pike summit. I last (and first) ascended Scafell last August in the rain, on a different race. This time, it wasn’t raining but the rocks were still wet and slippy. It’s hell. Two ascents and descents of Scafell Pike in a lifetime is enough for anyone. As you approach the summit, you realise it’s not the summit – and repeat this several times over. There are big jagged rocks and they move. If you slip, you could break your ankle or (and this was what I feared most) gash your shin. I can barely remember getting to the actual summit but I do have a photo to prove I was there!
Now for the descent. There are two options – the gentler way (recommended by the organisers, but slower) and the direct ‘straight off the edge’ way. You don’t even need to ask, do you? Yes we proceeded straight off the edge, traversing a boulderfield of loose rocks and scree. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad, but it was made worse at first by quite a few people yelling alarmingly and turning back for the safer route, which was a bit unsettling. I scrambled behind Nick, shouting to him ‘I haven’t got my life insurance sorted yet!’, and imagined my mum giving me a look.
Once we made it through the scree, there followed a long, knee shatteringly steep descent before things finally levelled off somewhat.
I’ve no idea of the mileage at any of these points. I think all I had in my head was the three mountains. We’d ticked two off, and I knew there was one more to come. But at this point I started to get concerned about the cut off. ‘Where’s Cockley Beck?’, I’d asked Nick. He didn’t know. I knew we’d been so slow over Scafell and I became worried now that this would be my first DNF. I REALLY wanted to finish and get the t-shirt. I felt a bit down at this point.
However….soon the ground was such that I was able to start running again. Nick correctly pointed out that we were gaining on people. We overtook a few. Eventually as we overtook a couple of older runners, I asked them if they knew how far Cockley Beck was. They said it was about 15 mins away and mostly downhill. The time was 14:30. My spirits lifted! We ran on, and arrived at Cockley Beck just after 3pm, almost an hour earlier than the cut-off! Running down to that checkpoint was, I think, one of the happiest moments of the race for me. I knew we’d be ok, I knew we’d finish, and there were more egg sandwiches – this time also cheese and pickle, so I grabbed one of each. The malt loaf, to my utter disappointment, was not buttered this time but I didn’t complain! The marshals throughout the race were incredible and cheered me up immensely at each CP.
After no time at all we were on our way again. One more climb, they’d said. According to my watch, there were another 2,000ft to go. It turned out to be 3,000ft, and I’m glad I hadn’t known that at the time. My jubilation of 10 minutes ago had faded as I started the steep, tussocky ascent to the Old Man of Coniston summit. I was not happy at all, I felt faint and exhausted and I really wanted to stop.
After a while the ascent levelled out and we started a traverse, where we would soon meet up with the out-and-back point and see runners coming back from the trig. It was nice to engage in some banter again and we cheered them all on as they came past. Then, we saw Simon and Olly, which again was a highpoint for me. We weren’t as far back as I’d imagined, and Olly, who was kindly going to drive me home that evening, realised he wasn’t going to have to wait as long as I’d warned him he might!
We continued the gradual, undulating final ascent through strong winds and intermittent sunshine. The sun made the lakes below appear silver, it was quite stunning. We thought at one point we might get a sunny trig shot (I took a selfie of me and Nick at each trig), but the sun disappeared behind a cloud and made for another foggy photo!
I grabbed yet another handful of Tangfastics and started the descent. It was pretty much all downhill now, but moving downhill was no longer a pleasant experience. Everything hurt. I shouldn’t complain though…as we came down from the summit, the clouds dispersed and the wind dropped, we ran the last 7 miles (or however long it was) in near perfect weather. Nick and I dug in and were fairly quiet, checking in on each other every now and again. Runners were few and far between at this point.
Soon I saw some high viz down below – it was the final checkpoint, and a stretch of road. Nick had told me about a steep section of road where he’d once had to run backwards as it was more comfortable doing so. Nick currently had ‘race brain’ and had blocked out all previous memory of the race, but we were pretty sure this was that road. It was. We ran down to the checkpoint gleefully shouting our number ’17’, said I, ’17’ said Nick. Grabbed half a cup of water (they were short at that point), and off we went.
We jogged over the crest of the hill, and then….down. I am usually a downhill runner. I only do the ups so that I can enjoy the downs. But this was awful. My body was wooden, my legs felt like they would snap, there was pain everywhere. I proceeded (facing forwards) with a grimace and hoped for it to end. We were overtaken by two or three pairs who were moving really well considering they’d been through the same thing we had.
After a couple of miles we turned left off the road and onto a beautiful trail. After a mile or so Nick informed me we had a couple of miles to go. At the time I remember thinking ‘thank goodness, because a couple of miles is all I’ve got!’. We overtook one (maybe two) of the pairs. Over a stile, down a rocky path and round the corner. And there, in an impossibly sunny and beautiful valley was our campsite, and a bit further on, the finish!
A brief moment of elation ’17!’ I shouted grinning, but futilely, into nowhere. It was still a mile or so away!
At this point Nick told me we could go on the road – the same one we’d taken during the morning from the campsite to the start – or through the fields at the back. He’d taken the road last time and didn’t know which was quicker. Said it was up to me.
So I followed the pair in front who took the back fields. It was pleasant enough until we reached two ladder stiles, one after the other, which not only slowed us down but were also not an easy or welcome endeavour at this stage in the race. As we ran up the path to the entrance to the finish, we realised that we’d made the wrong choice, and had lost at least two places in doing so. It didn’t really matter, but IF I ever do it again, I’ll know!
I love how there is always a sprint finish. No matter what you’ve put your body through, you can always find something. The only race I’ve not managed to do this on was Leg it Round Lathkil – if you’ve done it, you’ll know why! So, Nick and I sprinted across the line together and were handed our t-shirts. It was incredible. We’d done it! 10 hours, 17 minutes and 33 seconds.
The finish area was brilliant and the weather still perfect. Lots of congratulations from everyone. Juice, tea, amazing lentil soup and more sandwiches!
I entered this race as a Strider, but ran it as a member of Dark Peak. So this will be my last race report unfortunately. Thank you Striders for setting me on my way, 3.5 years ago, to be able to complete a race such as this! And thanks for reading if you got this far – a long report…it was a long race!
The race was won by Ricky Lightfoot (Ellensborough) and Tom Owens (Shettleson Harriers) in 07:05:17. Nick and I came 71st in 10:17:33. 99 pairs finished, and there were 14 DNFs.